Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

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Keep the Aspidistra Flying book cover
Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) is one of George Orwell’s earlier novels and one which he reserved little fondness for. Gordon Comstock, a mediocre poet, has left his comfortable job at the New Albion advertising agency in favour of dead-end work in a small bookshop. Gordon rails against the ‘money-god’ and the growing consumerism he sees around him, bemoaning his own impoverished state and his treatment at the hands of a society run on money. Refusing to accept help from his wealthy friend, Ravelston, and only taking small amounts from his sister, Julia, Gordon drags his uncomplaining girlfriend, Rosemary, down with him. As he blindly flails against the system, Gordon’s politics become evidently compromised, and when his first sexual encounter with Rosemary leads to an unexpected pregnancy he must choose whether to conform or to compound his suffering.

Gordon is an unexceptional poet, whose talent has been dulled first by the prostitution of his art and then by the poverty he imposes on himself to escape this predicament. Gordon is full of contradictions: While he holds lofty ideals he is quite willing to see his personal talent perish, equally, he appears oblivious to the fact that his creative output was at its peak when he worked at the New Albion. Of course, this is but feigned ignorance. Gordon is demonstrably a character who protects himself from having failure thrust upon him by imposing it upon himself. He is flawed, but that’s the point.

Comstock embodies many of the problems Orwell himself encountered; the disaffected citizen seeking to live morally in a capitalist society, torn between ideologies and unable to reconcile their own sense of the world sufficiently to develop a practical and satisfying mode of existence. Orwell’s own experiences of poverty inform his writing and mean Gordon’s own predicament is drawn well, the problems of being moneyless in a monied society – the emasculating effect, the toll it takes on the creative spirit, the practical limitations and the societal constrictions - are acutely identified.

Indeed, while Gordon puts money at the centre of all his problems, his perception of poverty is never the problem, rather it is that his poverty is self-imposed – and that its abolition, in the form of employment at the New Albion, is within arm’s reach at all points - that makes him an unsympathetic character. To choose poverty (and bemoan its condition) over conformity is an insult to those who have poverty thrust upon them, and Orwell punctures foppish literary pretension and the abandonment of responsibility fairly successfully here.

Ultimately, it seems that Gordon is rejecting adult life rather than money, he preferring to live in a state of semi-dependence, failing to take responsibility, etc. Fearing that he may not succeed in the capitalist world, it is easier for Gordon to pre-empt any failure by rejecting the money world and taking himself out of the equation altogether. Indeed, Keep the Aspidistra Flying has clear routes in George Gissing’s New Grub Street, a novel of literary failure, which Orwell much admired, and also foreshadowed the later Angry Young Men novels, which often depicted the battle between spirit and reality.

Like Comstock, Orwell harboured a deep-rooted fear that his creative writing was weak and not appreciated by the critics. It is true to say that Orwell’s prose lacked musicality and was perhaps best put to use in his essays, however, there were always thoughtful commentaries in Orwell’s writing and whilst Keep the Aspidistra Flying is not his finest fiction, it is still thought-provoking and prescient.

That said, some of the poetry of the book - the metaphors and similes - feel forced and are disappointingly weak. Gordon’s oft repeated sentiments about the ‘money-god’ quickly become tedious and go far beyond developing Comstock’s neurotic character, amounting instead to dulled fiction. This is the most notable example of repetition but the novel is littered with the same sentiments/thoughts expounded regularly and, usually, in remarkably similar form. The plot itself is contrived at times and when Orwell resorts to a pregnancy from Gordon and Julia's first sexual encounter, one feels such a clunky device is straight from the outdated Victorian tradition.

Keep the Aspidistra Flying is regularly described as a satirical novel but, save for a few short passages, this label feels not quite right. All is too bleak and undercut by a sense of futility and depression to be considered even Absurd satire.

The Aspidistra itself is a symbol of an archaic class system – the plant, once popular in the Victorian period, was by the 1930s used by the lower classes who wished to project a sense of respectability and comfortable affluence. It stands for stagnancy and the embracing of the status quo.

There is a simpleness to Gordon’s ideas which seems almost alien in the current world of rabid consumerism. Perhaps returning to a time when one could look clear-eyed at the state of things is no bad thing. It’s fair to say though, that Gordon’s politics are necessarily muddled – he sees nothing obscene in blowing an entire fee on an overpriced meal and plenty of alcohol or partaking in the capitalist system provided there’s nothing faintly glamorous about his role in it – but this is quite the point, the impossibility of the situation and the inevitability of conformity, in one form or another. Gordon, like Orwell, is a man who feels the disharmony of his age but who cannot find a workable solution. The novel shows a real self-awareness on Orwell’s part, not only of the wider condition but also of the middle-class socialist who cannot find complete allegiance with the working classes.

As a side note to Gordon’s literary unravelling, there is something on the commodification of literature here, something that Gordon himself is complicit in by virtue of doling out penny-dreadfuls and the like at a small lending library, which is ostensibly a money-making enterprise and not an enriching one.

As a novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is interesting but ultimately flawed. The plot is weak in the extreme and the writing is dry, repetitive and doesn’t convey Orwell’s message with any potency. Nevertheless, there is still something of value here, even if only as part of Orwell’s canon as a whole.

It was interesting to dip into one of Orwell's early novels, but this demonstrates a lot of the problems with his fiction. Nevertheless, it made me think a lot, and so there's clearly something of value here.


Useful Links
Reviews of Keep the Aspidistra Flying on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Keep the Aspidistra Flying on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of Keep the Aspidistra Flying on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of Keep the Aspidistra Flying on Amazon (US) 

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7 comments:

sandy said...

Nice review. I like the insights you share about authors which may not be generally known.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks very much, a kind thing to say - I do my best :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Another thing I meant to mention somewhere, was the power of demonstrating the centrality of money to those who do not have it. People with money are often assumed to focus very squarely on it, often to the detriment of other aspects of life. Here, Orwell shows how someone without money and with little prospect of making much, can fixate on its worth and raise it up to such a level of importance as to make its lack in his own life almost crippling.

Sam Ruddock said...

What a fine review (and thanks for commenting on mine, too!). I think you are absolutely right that the novel fails on certain levels and that Gordon is both an intentionally ridiculous character in his own right and one compromised by being part of a weakish novel. But like you, I did find some interesting ruminations here and am pleased I read it.

Great blog - only now discovering it but definitely going to be reading more.

Fay said...

I enjoyed the novel more than you did, but this is a fine and thought-provoking review.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Sam, many thanks for your kind words, and if you do take a look around, I hope you find something else worthy of your time and attention. In turn, I have greatly enjoyed what I have read on your blog so far.

Even though I felt that Keep the Aspidistra Flying was flawed on certain levels, there is still something about it that I found quite compelling/challenging.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks Fay - I certainly got something from the novel but perhaps not as much as others :)